The Original Activists: Black Feminism and the Black Feminist Movement

“Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters.” – The Combahee River Collective  

The Tradition of Black Feminism 

The tradition of black feminism stems from the condition of being both Black and a woman. It characterizes itself by a multi-dimensional approach to liberation but is resistant to claiming a specific definition. It focuses on the intersection of racism and sexism and how they create the social issues and inequalities Black women face. Within, it ranges from an intellectual, artistic, philosophical, and activist practice. The core principles that exist among black feminists include: 

  • “Black women’s experience of racism, sexism, and classism are inseparable.” 
  • “Their needs and worldviews are distinct from those of black men and white women.” 
  • “There is no contradiction between the struggle against racism, sexism, and all other-isms. All must be addressed simultaneously.” 

The Defining Decades for Black Feminism 

The presence of the Black feminist movement evolved with the second wave of the American women’s movement in the late 1960s, making the 1970s, a defining decade for contemporary Black feminism. Although, accounts of the start of the Black feminist movement can be traced back to the 1830s, and we must highlight the women who made strides for Black feminism before the movement was named, women such as Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Akasha Gloria Hull, Bell Hooks, and Ida B. Wells.  

The 60s and 70s lit a spark in the movement because of the arousal and growing tensions between the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Second wave of feminism turned a blind eye towards the needs and struggles of Black queer women, as Audre Lorde said, white women fail feminism in their “refusal to recognize differences and to examine the distortions which result from misnaming them.” With steps being made that further separated the two groups, Black women set out to build their own movement, separating from mainstream, white-dominated women’s liberation movement and deploying black feminism centralized around intersectionality.  

Pauli Murray  

A founding figure of the separation and uplift of the Black feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s was Pauli Murray, a Black queer feminist, civil rights lawyer, priest, and co-founder of NOW. She played an important role in civil, social, and legal organizations during the rise of the Black feminist movement during the 1960s and 70s. Mainly, she theorized and wrote about the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality, sharing her experiences of black womanhood and asserting that her identifiers could not be separated, an ideal that fueled her legal work and activism.  

Intersectionality 

Today, we continue Murray’s beliefs of intersectionality. The term was formally introduced by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, although the concept had been described by activists many times before. It refers to the complex way in which gender, race, and other social categories interact to influence an individual’s life outcome. As she says in her paper “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” “When feminism does not explicitly oppose racism and when anti-racism does not incorporate opposition to the patriarchy, race and gender politics often end up being antagonistic to each other and both interests lose.” 

By the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the black feminist shifted from being grounded in a black, heterosexual woman to a more radical black feminist focusing on queer and trans black women, girls, and gender nonconforming peoples, as Crenshaw states, Black women “are differently situated in the economic, social, and political worlds.”

Feminist Groups 

Within the Black feminist movement and even beforehand, there is the club movement: the creation of feminist groups, women’s clubs, and Black sororities that continue on the ideals of the Black feminist movement today. By this time, middle-class black women organized social and political reform through women’s organizations or clubs. But they effected the movement even beforehand. The well-known motto for Black women’s activism in the late nineteenth century, “Lifting as we climb,” stems from the slogan of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).

In 1973, Black feminists identifying as queer were at the forefront of black feminist groups as well as creating their own organizations within the movement. These organizations include the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), Salsa Soul Sisters: one of the first out and explicitly multi-cultural lesbian organizations, and the influential Combahee River Collective.  

From the creation of Black women’s clubs and mutual aid societies came the creation of Black sororities, resemblances of the first organizations that sought to combat racism and discrimination. These sororities stand strong today and carry on the tradition of creating change. In the seven women Kamala Harris saluted in her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, all but two belonged to Black sororities. Harris herself mentioned her own, saying, “Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha.” allowing for communities of resistance in which Black women can not only survive, but achieve, refute stereotypes, and fight gendered racism.  

Black Feminism Today 

Today, the marks of Black women and the impact of the Black feminist movement are seen all around us, whether we see them or not. Black women have been central to the movements we see today: third-wave feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

Although #MeToo began gaining following in recent years, the phrase #MeToo itself was first introduced in 2006 by African American sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke, raising awareness specifically for marginalized victims. Black women have been fighting this battle for decades, being at higher risks of sexual violence than white counterparts. 

Even the Black Lives Matter Movement is rooted in the acknowledgment of intersectionality. The movement forces people to see the interlocking systems of oppression that operate in our lives. BLM’s inclusive nature and coverage on a wide range of topics show its basis off of Black feminism. They address the issues of heterosexual Black men and women, as well as the issues of Black LGBTQIA+ men and women. This can be accredited to the three women that co-founded the movement, Patrisse Cullars and Alicia Garza being Black queer women with an understanding of police brutality from all perspectives. 

The Original Activists: Black Feminism and the Black Feminist Movement

While we recently celebrated Black History Month and Women’s History Month, we must continue to highlight the centrality of Black women in the movements and the mark of Black feminism.  

Sascha Shroff, PAC Intern

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